Israel holds off on new push into Lebanon

Israeli leaders said Thursday that they would stall a planned new operation against Hizbullah.

A month and still fighting, with more than 800 people dead, it comes down to this: The current Israel-Hizbullah conflict will be a long war that could define the region for years to come; or a short one that historians will view as a few violent weeks in the turbulent trajectory of the Middle East.

The answer hangs in the balance, with Israel is sending out signals that foreshadow very different paths.

On Wednesday, Israel's security cabinet voted to expand ground operations that could include sending thousands more soldiers deep into south Lebanon, in a push military officials say would continue for at least another month. But Thursday, Israeli leaders said that was only a decision enabling a broader ground war, not an order to execute it. Israel will hold off on the incursion to give diplomats more time to work toward a cease-fire.

"It's an opportunity for diplomacy to prevail," says Gideon Meir, the deputy director-general of Israel's foreign ministry. "The military operations continue, and that's a part of the resolution of the cabinet. What is at stake now is the question of expansion."

If the United Nations Security Council, set to meet Friday, can present a draft resolution that satisfies a minimum of Israeli and Lebanese demands, Mr. Meir indicated, a cease-fire deal over the weekend could be within reach. "It's all in the hands of the Security Council," he says. "If it will not prevail, we will have no choice but to continue."

Several factors in the last few days have likely contributed to Israel's increased openness to diplomatic possibilities. One is the fighting capabilities of Hizbullah, which is proving to be a more formidable foe than during Israel's last foray into south Lebanon. That war of attrition ended with an Israeli withdrawal in 2000.

A second factor is the cracks that have begun to appear in the domestic political arena. When the security cabinet voted on Wednesday to expand ground operations, three cabinet members abstained, including former Labor party leader, Shimon Peres, show says Israel has already forfeited the element of surprise, that the incursion would endanger Israel's relations with Arab and Muslim countries.

Third and most important, many analysts here say, is the painful price Israel has been paying in soldiers' lives. On Wednesday, 15 Israeli soldiers died in heavy fighting, with more than 30 others wounded.

"The sacred cow in Israel is the life of the soldiers, not of the citizens," says Daniel Ben Simon, a columnist with the Ha'aretz daily newspaper. "It's not the military that is hesitating, it is Israel, and the price we would have to pay in our soldiers' lives. As soon as the number reaches something like a hundred, you lose the war, even if strategically or militarily, you won."

Mr. Ben Simon, a prominent commentator on strategic and international affairs, says that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's decision to put the breaks on a wider Israeli army offensive in Lebanon is a sign of willingness to listen to a proposal that could end the war sooner.

"The cabinet gave a green light to go ahead in Lebanon, but they're waiting for the international community, in particular Washington. The Americans are the only ones who can find a workable solution," he says. "What they should hear is, 'We're ready to go on even to Beirut and to Syria, but we'll give diplomacy a chance,' but no one in Washington is reacting. That is something that the Americans have failed to understand, that Israel is giving a chance for a political settlement, and trying to give a chance for the Americans to do something."

Israel has indicated that it would not pull out of south Lebanon, which it occupied for 18 years until it withdrew in the spring of 2000, until an international peacekeeping force is deployed in the area – one with a much more powerful mandate than the current United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), which is an observer mission.

Lebanon's prime minister, Fouad Siniora, has since offered to send some 15,000 Lebanese Army troops to the south; Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says he is studying the proposal. Both Mr. Siniora and Hizbullah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, say they would not accept a deal that leaves Israeli soldiers in Lebanon. Israel says there would otherwise be a vacuum, one that Hizbullah would quickly fill again.

Domestically, many Israelis are skeptical that a foreign force could succeed in the difficult job called for in UN Resolution 1559, which calls for Hizbullah to be disarmed, or that international peacekeepers will put their lives on the line in order to keep Hizbullah from hitting Israeli targets over the border. Instead, the popular theory that prevails among harder-line Israelis is that their army should do as much damage to Hizbullah as possible – and push the Iranian-supported militia's positions as far north from the international border as they can.

As part of a larger ground offensive, Israeli forces are expected to push northward to the Litani River, seen as a kind of finish line for southern Lebanon. Some of the areas closest to the river and farther from the border, military officials say, are the areas from which many short-range missiles are being launched.

"There's no question whatsoever that we prefer a diplomatic solution," says Miri Eisin, a government spokeswoman. "If there's an expanded ground operation, that takes time. There's planning, there's training, calling up reserves."

The preparations are something you need to start now, and you have to be prepared for any possibility. We said from the start that we prefer the diplomatic route. We want to give a full chance, not an 'as if' chance."

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